Befitting tribute: Yony Waite’s last work on display at Circle Art

Yony Waite 3

Yony Waite’s Migration at Circle Art Gallery on March 7, 2024. PHOTO | POOL 

When you were in the presence of her creative genius and her selfless joy, you would never expect a time would come when Yony Waite would be no more.

When it did on February 13, 2024, we were still shocked, which is why such a diverse range of Kenyans and ex-pats came to her Memorial Tribute at Circle Art Gallery last Tuesday night and the rest of the week. That was where we also saw the last array of works that Yony left behind.

Thanks to her sister-in-law Linda Benvenuto Hopcraft who dug them all out of Yony’s studio at Athi River, we saw them all, including her two beautifully evocative six-foot tall screens and one elegant, suggestive sofa displayed, for sale, and filling all the wall space in the Circle gallery.

It was a fraction of Yony’s artworks, but it did include some of her paintings, prints, sketches, collages, screens and whimsical sofa. An even bigger portion of her work was shared wherever she went, be it to South Africa, Sweden, Somalia Sudan or Mexico, Matsumoto, Japan, Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro, or Guam.

Born in Hollywood where she, at age 12, was grabbed by her dad who’d just got a new job with USAID in Guam as a civil engineer. From then on, she’d become an intrepid traveller and student. She studied painting and sculpture at the universities of Hawaii, California and Berkeley, and then classical Chinese art in Hong Kong and Japanese brush painting, the style that she said was the most important influence in her art. For two years she studied the Japanese folk art of Mingei brush painting under her mentor.

Yony Waite 1

Yony Waite's Chinese Dragon at Circle Art Gallery on March 7, 2024. PHOTO | POOL 

Despite having studied fine art in the United States, Yony largely turned her back on Western art, calling it elitist and individualistic, in contrast to the Mingei approach that is communal and ‘of the people’. That’s how she came to work with women groups both in Athi River where her home was on a conservancy filled with all sorts of wildlife, and with Lamu women who helped her create a long silk and satin ‘Snake Banner’ which she took to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio.

The women’s embroidery was stitched onto the satin snake and carried on four long mangrove poles in protest of the damage being done to our environment by humans.

But Yony was always a prolific painter and loved to share her art. Once she arrived in Nairobi in 1962, she found very few galleries where she could exhibit her art, she’d told BDLife years ago. That changed once she met the batik-on-silk painter, the late Robin Anderson with whom she started Gallery Watatu with Robin’s designer friend David Hart in 1968. Several years later, Robin and David broke away to open Tazama Gallery which exclusively sold Robin’s batiks. By this time, Yony already knew she wasn’t a business woman so several women took shares in Watatu, one of whom was Rhodia Mann. By now Watatu had opened up to exhibiting Kenyan artists like Ancent Soi, Etale Sukuru, and Jak Katarikawe as well as others.

One place in Kenya where Yony loved to live was in Lamu where she first bought an old Swahili house. That is where she established her second gallery, the Wildebeest Workshop. It’s also where she put the second-hand printing press that’s been used by many young Kenyan artists, like members of the Brush Tu artists collective who took up a residency at Wildebeest where they and others learned printmaking both from UK artist Mandy Bonnell and Yony herself.

It was quite a feat to get the press to Lamu, but it was worth it to Yony who was practising Mingei in the communal learning process that was benefiting everyone involved.

Yony would eventually buy a second old coral-walled traditional Lamu house close to her workshop. It also became a kind of B&B given her new home was four stories tall and had a beautiful open-air view of the sea.

Fortunately, Yony was living at Athi River when she passed. No one expected it but fortunately, Linda swung into high gear on her sister-in-law’s behalf. She also worked with Circle’s curator-founder to hang most of Yony’s latest works, some of which can still be purchased at shockingly affordable prices.

Yony Waite 2

Yony Waite's 4-panel screen at the Circle Art Gallery on March 7, 2024. PHOTO | POOL 

Linda also assembled all the press reviews and posters of her shows, all of which shed more light on this wonderful Kenyan artist who became a Kenyan citizen several years before she passed on.

PAYE Tax Calculator

Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.